Mesalands Dinosaur Museum makes important discovery

By Tova Fruchtman: Quay County Sun

When Kiera Mortensen was a child her pockets were often filled with rocks.

The Mesalands paleontology student from West Virginia picked up anything that she thought resembled a fossil. She said she always wanted to be a palentoligist.

She didn’t know when she enrolled in at Mesalands in fall 2004 that she would help make a discovery that would broaden the understanding of the Triasic era and the phytosaurs — a crocodile like predator.

As soon as she began school in Tucumcari, Mortensen got to work with fossils and Palentogist and Museum Curator Axel Hungerbuehler as an internship at Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, she said.

Even though it was her first semester, he gave her ( along with another intern Teresa Allsup of Clovis) a 220 million year old collection of fossils from Lamy to sort through.

When Mortesen brought Hungerbuehler a fragment of a bone to ask what he thought the hole in it was she said she didn’t know she had stumbled upon an important discovery.

Inside what she thought may have been a hole for nerves was actually a tooth. This was only one of 3 or 4 times that a tooth had been found inside a bone during the entire history the study of fossils, Hungerbuehler said.

“I didn’t know it was that big a deal to find a tooth in a bone,” Mortensen said.

The big deal is that both the fragmented bone and the tooth were from the same dinosaur species, Hungerbuehler said.

For many years paleontologists have theorized that phytosaurs fought with one another for terretory, food or control; however there has never been solid proof,
Hungerbuehler said, until now.

“It’s so rare in the fossil record that you can say something so exactly. It gives me great pleasure,” Hungerbuehler said.
“This particular animal has been bit by a fellow animal.”

“It also of course wets the appetite that there’s more out there,” he said.

USA Today published the findings of the Mesalands crew in their Discoveries section.

“It put us on the map, at least in a national view,” Hungerbuehler said. “It can make a real good impact for the college itself.”

But Hungerbuehler said there is still plenty of work to be done.

“There’s still a lot to be done … we don’t know everything,” he said.

As for Mortesen she feels lucky that she had such a great opportunity.

“I felt it was pretty amazing because there isn’t any other college that I know of where I would be able to hands-on do these things,” she said.